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Understanding Language - Part 1

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

If you begin to work on spelling and writing (for yourself or with a child), you may find a whole new vocabulary that you never knew. This week, we start to break down some of the important terms and concepts to help you make sense of it all. We are also working on a new glossary page for the Dysgraphia Life site to help!

Phonemes and Phonics, Phonemic Awareness vs. Phonological Awareness

These aren't the same thing? No, they're not and it can be very confusing at first. Think of a phoneme as a single sound. In fact, it's the smallest unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another. The sound made by a single letter or sounds from two letters like /th/ or /sh/. There are 44 phonemes in the English language.

Example: rat -> sat -> sit

The sound of the r in rat is a phoneme that when you change it to the sound of a s, it makes a new word: sat. Then the sound of the short a changes to the sound of the short i to change between sat and sit. Understanding the difference in how these sound changes make new words is phonemic awareness. The sounds themselves are the phonemes. Rhyming games are a great way to test phonemic awareness. This is all done verbally - not written. Can you change one of the sounds in the word ball to make a new word?

Now what about phonics? Phonics is understanding the relationship between writing and the sound. For example, it is understanding what sound the letter b makes. A grapheme is the letter or letters that we use to spell a sound (such as t or th). Because English is confusing, graphemes can have more than one phoneme. Think of the letter c. The written letter c is a grapheme that represents a sound like an s (one phoneme) OR a sound like a k (a second phoneme.) Phonics drills often focus on seeing one letter or set of letters (the grapheme) and making the corresponding sound (the phoneme). This can also be done in reverse, hearing the sound (phoneme) and writing the letters that make the sound (grapheme).

Implications for Dysgraphia

So now that you know these terms, why does it matter?

To be able to write down your thoughts, you need to think of the words and then encode them into the proper written symbols. We will get into higher-level words and thinking next time, but if you want to write the word "cat" you need to use the skills we just discussed. First, you need to have the phonemic awareness that a cat and a rat are different things. Then you need to know the phonics that will allow you to match the sounds (phonemes) for in your head to the letters (graphemes) that you write. Understanding where you or your child may be struggling in these processes can help point out where to spend time working on strengthening skills. We recommend explicit phonics instruction and learning language arts through Orton-Gillingham based programs to help learn these skills.

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